Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Five things you need to know about pronouns

What is there to know about pronouns? Something about its and it’s and something else about between you and me.

There is plenty more, it turns out.

First off, there are more pronouns than you might think. Personal pronouns get most of the attention nowadays, especially the widely accepted singular they and other non-binary pronouns. But personal pronouns are just one group among several. There are reflexive (or self) forms, indefinite pronouns like everyone, anyone, and someone (or the more informal everybody, anybody, and somebody), demonstrative pronouns like this and that and these and those, and even interrogative pronouns like who and its stuffy sibling whom, to name just a few.

A second thing to know is that pronouns are not always single words. Some of them are, and in some cases they are so weightless that it’s hard to have them at the end of a sentence. (Try saying Give me it or Where’s it?) But other pronouns are compound, like the reciprocal pronouns each other and one another, the emphatic reflexives I myself, you yourself, they themselves, and so on. There are even idiomatic compounds like Everybody and their dog, which just means everybody, and dismissive compounds like your ass, which just means you in sentences like “If you keep that up, they’re going to fire your ass.”

Third is the fact that pronouns are always changing. The Old English third person pronouns were hē, hēo, hit, and hīe. Over time, hēo was replaced by she, a borrowing from Scandinavian according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Hīe was replaced by they. And hit lost its h to become it. Later still, second person you and thou shifted from just distinguishing singular versus plural to indicating social distance: formal versus informal, like French tous and vous. And still later the thou forms were lost and the you pronouns became both singular and plural. The same thing is happening today with they, which is well on its way to being a standard singular form.

A fourth thing is that pronouns reveal our motives and emotions. Are we focused on ourselves or others? Is it me, me, me or us? Social psychologist James Pennebaker has done large-scale computer analysis of pronouns in blogs, love letters, plays, and presidential speeches, showing how the percentages of “I” and “we” offer insight into everything from how people respond to tragedies to whether lovers will break up.

Fifth and finally, pronouns are surprisingly hard for children to learn. Imagine you are an infant listening in on a conversation between two adults. They refer to themselves as “I” and “me” and to the other as “you.”  Pronouns have variable rather than stable reference and it takes time for infants to learn the nuances. That’s why parents might refer to themselves as “Mommy” or “Daddy.”

Pronouns are shifty—but they are also fascinating.

Recent Comments

  1. Rebecca

    tu and vous are the 2nd person pronouns in French, not tous. tous means “all”.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *